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10/31/2010

10 years ago: Ring Lardner Jr.

October 31, 2010 |  6:00 am

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Ring Lardner Jr. was the last living member of the Hollywood 10, a group of writers and filmmakers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and were imprisoned and blacklisted. He was 85 when he died of cancer 10 years ago.

Lardner, a screenwriter, won an Academy Award with Michael Kanin for "Woman of the Year" in 1942, and another in 1970 for "MASH." His career survived the confrontation with HUAC -- he used pseudonyms and worked in Mexico and London -- but he was denied credit for 17 years of work.

When asked by Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas if he was or had been a Communist, the wry Lardner answered famously: "I could answer that question the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but if I did I'd hate myself in the morning." Lardner was banished from the hearing room, and he ultimately served 10 months in federal prison.

In fact Lardner was a Communist -- privately but unapologetically. He had become infatuated with Communism during a visit to the Soviet Union when he was 18, in 1934. "It seemed like there was a lot of hope in the air [in Russia]," his son James said, "whereas in Germany he saw awful stuff and in America he saw bread lines." Lardner's politics may have blurred -- "He discarded all that '30s garbage and went on with his life," said Stefan Kanfer, who wrote a book about the blacklist era -- but he never yielded in his refusal to name other members of the party.

"Dalton Trumbo once said that there were no heroes, only victims," Lardner said of the period. "Maybe that was a little overboard, but in principle I agree with him. Some of the people who did testify were under very strong pressures and just didn't have any other ways of making a living. I sympathize more with the couple of hundred people who never did get back to work in Hollywood because they hadn't been well enough established before they were blacklisted."

Lardner had three brothers, all of whom died relatively young while engaged in efforts of war or journalism or both. His father was Ring Lardner, the baseball writer and short-story author who struck up family friendships with Long Island neighbors Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, made an impression on the young Ring Jr.:

"I have never known another adult, except my Aunt Anne, who seemed to say exactly what came into her head as it came," he wrote, "without any apparent exercise of judgment."

The Times obituary describes the legal theory behind Lardner's approach to the House Un-American Activities Committee -- he refused to plead the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. And the New York Times obit has some other great details: Lardner decided, after reading "Gone With the Wind" at David O. Selznick's request, that it "had no future as a movie," and he didn't see a place for "MASH" on TV.

-- Michael Owen

Photo: Ring Lardner Jr. arrives at court in Washington in 1950 with fellow blacklisted writers. From left, Samuel Ornitz, Lardner, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Edward Dmytryk. Credit: Associated Press

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